The graves in Florida’s oldest Black cemeteries are marked with shells, stones, and mementos of the deceased.
A GIANT, CRUMBLING CROSS, HALF-SUNK in the ground, rises out of the tall grass. Makeshift headstones lean crookedly over the thick roots of gnarled trees, their inscriptions long faded, the names of those laid to rest forgotten. All that remains in their memory are mossy conch shells, weather-worn pebbles, a rusted antique roller skate, mementos of hard lives and different times.
This is the condition of both Pinehurst and San Sebastian cemeteries, two woebegone, neglected burial grounds half-hidden under untamed grass and debris. Together, Pinehurst and San Sebastian are believed to be the oldest segregated black cemeteries in the state of Florida.
Exactly how old no one is quite sure—several graves are unmarked—but recovered headstones date it back to as early as the 1840s. Many buried here were born into slavery, but other, later graves are those of World War I veterans and railroad workers who were not allowed to be buried in the same ground as their white counterparts.
Pinehurst-San Sebastian is a place of lore and mystery; graves bear the practice of burial rituals tracing back to a number of African tribes, including planting trees in lieu of erecting headstones to represent life after death, and leaving offerings of stones, seashells, and mementos from the deceased person’s life, all things meant to placate the souls of the departed and keep them from coming back to haunt the living.
Since the original property owner’s passing sometime in the 1960s, the upkeep of Pinehurst-San Sebastian has been virtually non-existent. Over the years, community-initiated clean-ups have provided short-term solutions to restoration, but without county funding and support, the cemeteries continue to fall into irreversible disrepair.
Know Before You Go
The cemetery is in West St. Augustine, located on the south side of Pearl St. where it meets Nassau St. There is a massive hole in the fence that provides access inside, but please tread carefully as many of the grave markers are overgrown.